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Representing the Seriously Injured

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Finding Fault in a Personal Injury Rear-End Accident Without Direct Evidence of Carelessness

Connecticut Car Accident Personal Injury Lawyer, New Britain - Farmington
Proving Fault in Rear End Auto
Accident Personal Injury Case

Rawls v. Progressive Northern Ins. Co., ___ A.3rd ___, 310 Conn. 768 (2014)

In a car accident case where there was no evidence as to what the defendant driver was doing when he crashed into the plaintiff’s car from behind, the Connecticut Supreme Court looked back to a 1932 case involving a team of horses to rule that a jury could find that the driver was careless because the accident occurred in broad daylight on a straight road.

            It was 5 pm on June 14, 1929.  Edward Stevens was driving his father’s car on the road from Hartford to Middletown.  Up ahead, he saw a slow moving line of traffic following a team of horses pulling a baker wagon, which was probably returning home after distributing the bread and pastries that had been baked that morning.  Edward told the jury he signaled and slowed down.

            Behind Edward, William J. Ghent, Jr. was a passenger in a car driven by Thomas Hellyer.  Thomas hit Edward’s car from behind and the impact tragically threw William from the car onto the pavement, killing him.  (Seatbelts were not available in cars until the Nash  automobile company made them an option in 1949.)

            Thomas told the jury that he drove into Edward’s car because Edward tried to pass the line of cars but suddenly swerved back due to an oncoming car .  Edward denied doing this.  The jury believed Edward, not Thomas, and said that Edward was not responsible for this fatal accident.

            Thomas appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court.  The Court concluded that there was “abundant evidence” to support the jury’s decision, stating, “from our examination of the evidence, it would appear that the jury might reasonably have concluded that the sole cause of the accident was the negligence of the operator of the car in which [William] was riding” because it “was broad daylight on a clear day,” the “road was straight,” and Thomas “had a full view of the [Edward’s] car and of the traffic ahead, and had abundant opportunity either to have stopped his car if under reasonable control or to have turned out to the right and avoided the accident.”

            Fast forward to a red traffic light in Bridgeport, Connecticut, at 11:30 pm on March 27, 2006.  Ronald Rawls stops at the light and about 15 seconds later hears a “loud noise” and is “hit from behind real hard” by a car driven by Zabian Bailey.  Ronald tells the jury that he “did not see Bailey’s car prior to the collision, did not know where Bailey was looking when the accident occurred, was not aware of Bailey’s speed, and could not state whether Bailey had applied his brakes or swerved prior to the collision.”

            The jury decided that Zabian was responsible for this rear end accident and gave Ronald money for his medical bills and personal injuries.  (Zabian did not have insurance, so Ronald’s lawyer filed a claim against Ronald’s own insurance company, Progressive Northern, which was responsible for the accident under the uninsured motorist part of Ronald’s policy.)

            Progressive appealed to the Connecticut Appellate Court, which threw out the jury’s verdict, noting that Ronald’s recollection of a loud noise did not prove negligence and he did not have any eyewitness to prove that Zabian had been negligent.  Unhappy that he would not get anything for his personal injury case, Ronald had his lawyer appeal to the Connecticut Supreme Court.

            A lot was riding on the Supreme Court’s decision.  Think about it.  The most common car accident personal injury case is a rear end accident.  Many times, if not most of the time, the driver and passengers in the car that gets hit do not see the car that hits them before the crash.  They are looking forward, the driver waiting for the light to change, the passengers seated normally, eyes forward. There are often no witnesses to an accident or the witnesses often leave before the police arrive.

            If the Appellate Court’s decision became the law, no one could recover money for a rear end personal injury car accident case unless they were looking backwards or had witnesses to prove that the other driver was not paying attention.  The case was so important that the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association asked permission to file a brief (written argument) with the Supreme Court.

            Fortunately for Ronald  and for anyone that gets hurt in Connecticut when a careless driver hits them from behind  the Supreme Court overturned the Appellate Court and gave Ronald the money that the jury had awarded him for his personal injury case.  Looking back to Edward Stevens and the slow moving team of horses, the Supreme Court stated, “The present case is similar to Ghent v. Stevens … in which this court found that there was sufficient evidence to support findings of negligence and causation based on the facts that there was a rear-end collision in ‘broad daylight,’ on a ‘clear day,’ and on a straight road with a ‘full view’ of the traffic ahead.”

            In reinstating the jury verdict, the Supreme Court stated:

First, the jury could have considered the fact that the plaintiff was stopped at a red traffic light and that traffic lights are normally highly visible to drivers. The jury also could have considered that, because the weather was clear and the road was flat and straight, the traffic light and the two stopped cars at that light probably would have been visible from a great distance. In addition, the jury could have inferred from the fact that the plaintiff was stopped for fifteen seconds prior to the collision that the traffic light was red for at least fifteen seconds, if not
longer …. Bailey thus would have had ample opportunity to react and avoid the collision if he had been acting with reasonable
            Summing up:  Have car insurance.  Watch out for traffic ahead of you.  Wear your seatbelt.  And if you are hit from behind and suffer personal injury in Connecticut, get a lawyer who can remind the court about those horses pulling the baker’s carriage back to Middletown.